Governor Gavin Newsom recently appointed Fresno poet Lee Herrick as California’s newest poet laureate. Herrick is the first Asian American to be so honored. He has been widely published in literary magazines across the nation and is the author of three books.
In bestowing the honor, the governor said that Herrick was chosen because of his dedication to highlighting the diverse experiences of Californians and making them accessible through his poetry. The actual appointment unfolded with a surprise visit from Governor Newsom to Herrick’s Fresno City College classroom.
“It was an absolute thrill, deeply humbling, very exciting,” said Herrick. “It’s starting to settle in now, but having the governor and the first partner walk into my poetry class to tell me in person was unforgettable.”
Herrick was born in South Korea in 1970 and was raised in the Bay Area and San Joaquin Valley by his adoptive parents. His literary inspiration came from the vibrant poetry scene by the Bay and his frequent visits to City Lights Bookstore.
Herrick says what inspires him now comes from his students and his immersion in the celebrated Fresno poetry scene. Juan Felipe Herrera, another Valley writer, was named California’s first Latino poet laureate in 2015. Over the years, poetry and literature growing from Valley soil have gained a national reputation.
“The poetry here is boundless and as powerful as any poetry being written in the country,” says Herrick. “Anywhere I go around the country people will ask me what it’s like to be a poet in Fresno and do you know Juan Felipe and things like that.
“I could go on and on of the poets whose books are really having a meaningful impact on people’s lives and on the poetry community in general.”
Much of Herrick’s writing revolves around the immigrant experience in America. He says that growing up as a person of color immersed in a White social milieu played an important role in developing an understanding of American culture. That patchwork quilt of diverse ethnicities, cultures, languages and lifeways that describes his San Joaquin Valley is why he feels so at home here.
Herrick has been a Fresno City College professor for more than a quarter-century and affirms that the poetry emerging from the Valley illustrates and celebrates that diversity: “It’s exciting to see how that diversity continues to expand, you know not just with race and gender, but orientation, aesthetic and vision.”
His inspiration to become a poet, Herrick notes, has roots ranging from classical American poets, like Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, all the way to rock, punk and rap musical genres. Music is still a creative stimulant.
In current times, what arouses his muse is the trauma and tragedy of gun violence and the killing of people of color in America and how to cope with it.
Being the state’s poet laureate is more than just an honorific title. It is a job.
His job description is advocating for poetry in classrooms and boardrooms across the state, inspiring an emerging generation of literary artists, and educating all Californians about the many poets and authors who have influenced our state through creative literary expression. And Herrick has a plan for the mission he wants to carry out.
“I’m calling my platform ‘Our California,’ which will bring together poetry with social justice and civic engagement organizations around the state,” notes Herrick.
“So, wherever I read, I will invite the curator or the organizer to bring on one of those organizations to pair with my reading. And it might include a local poet or a student poet, but I also want to bring that organization to the event so those folks and the poetry folks can be in community and in conversation with each other.”
California Poet Laureate Herrick believes in the power of poetry. That poetry can move people toward action and change and community.